On Beauty


“To argue with a dead man is embarrassing and not very loyal. It is all the more so when the absent one is a potential friend and a most valuable interlocutor: but it can be an obligatory step. I speak about Hans Mayer, alias Jean Amery, the philosopher who committed suicide and a theoretician of suicide …” Introductory paragraph of chapter 6 entitled “The intellectual in Auschwitz” from the book “The Drowned and the Saved.” By Primo Levi

“Late one night, Chris was summoned to ‘headquarters’. That was how people in camp referred to the small house at the foot of the hill on the edge of the settlement. In this house lived the investigator who handled ‘particular important matters’. The phrase was a joke, since there were no ‘matters’ that were not particularly important. Any violation of the rules or even the appearance of such a violation was punishable by death. It was either death or a verdict of total innocence. But what man lived to tell the tale of such a verdict?”

Opening paragraph entitled “Handwriting” from “Kolyma Tales” by Varlam Shalamov.

Twin events recently have started to reshape how I feel about my work, and maybe how I start to revalue it. I don’t really think of this as a Damascene moment, for if truth be told I have been hesitating at a metaphorical crossroads for some time. The choices that seemed apparent to me weren’t clear, but weren’t not made for fear of wanting to move and engage with a medium that has held me in thrall in ever increasing amounts since before these studies began, although accelerating now.

Primo Levi, who studied chemistry at the University in Turin, a skill that helped him survive Auschwitz, was able to describe that horrific experience by writing beautiful prose that, translated into the English language, enabled me to reflect on man’s inhumanity to man. I was drawn into Levi’s experience by the means of his beautiful use of language. Similarly Shalamov’s book of short stories, connected only by their telling of tales from a Soviet forced-labour camp in North Eastern Siberia under the reign of Stalin. Neither of these books are easy reading, but their prose, and that of their other works delivers the readers to places that might be too difficult to reach without those words chosen to be read in an order that helps the reader to understand, to comprehend. John Glad, the translator of the “Kolymar Tales” says in his introduction.. “If you are about to read the stories of Varlam Shalamov for the first time, you are a person to be envied, a person whose life is about to be changed, a person who will envy others once you have forded these waters.”

I agree with Glad that I do envy those who haven’t stepped into that river yet, because, as he also suggests elsewhere in the same introduction, ‘you can’t step into the same river twice’, the river has moved on, flowed away.

Siegfried’s video from the Thames Valley study day shows the difficulty I felt/feel about my work. I had envisioned that the ‘pretty’ images that I brought to the event would entice, but I gambled on the audience reflecting, like me, that their substance was insufficient to warrant much discussion. And yes, there was a reason to talk about them at the same time as trying to talk about the other ‘documents’ that I had taken to present and it was that they linked to the later presentation on transition.

I was frustrated that I didn’t manage to convince the other participants of how I felt about my work, at either the review or the transition stage. And I don’t think now that the audience were just being nice – at least I hope not. To say that I have thought about this ‘prettiness’ issue for some time would be to underestimate it by some margin.  That their comments haven’t stopped ringing in my ears would also be equally true.

“What’s wrong with a pretty picture” was and has been suggested to me a great many times, and the answer is of course nothing. Nothing is wrong with a pretty picture, these conversations about the worth of an image, a song, a poem which delights in the moment. They should be celebrated, they generally make us feel good, they make me feel good. Feeling good is good, what could be wrong in that? Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater Nisi Dominus Rv 608 : Cum Dederit Dilectis has me singing at the top of my voice, that it was used by Sarah Moon as a sound track to her film Mississippi One perhaps heightens it a bit for me, but I get the same buzz from listening to all sorts, though Vivaldi’s treatment of the Stabat Mater isn’t one that moves me to religion, I love it in the moment, it doesn’t have any discursive value for me; I am where I was before I started the cd spinning. The same isn’t true however with John Grant’s painful description of his lack of love for his father in “JC hates Faggots” from the album “Queen of Denmark”. They are things of beauty, some with and some without depth and I love signing with them (though it has to be said no-one likes me singing). Tin pan alley produced songs for the machine that was the music industry, there are many landscape and portrait photographers who produce images for the same reason and good luck to them, I wish them all well.

Tom Hunter, at a recent study date, described how he knew he had to engage with an audience, otherwise how would he ever hope to deliver anything to that audience. If a visitor to an exhibition isn’t attracted long enough, if a viewer to a web-site isn’t drawn to linger then the effort to create whatever narrative, however noble, will have been in vain. If the intent of creating imagery is to provide a platform or arena for discourse then it needs to deliver the primary function of being noticed, of capturing the attention. Hunter mentioned that his work stems from a documentary perspective and his need to want to engage with an audience was palpable, he spoke of making the “ugly” “beautiful”, I’ve had similar thought about Brent Stirton’s documentary work. About how the photographer takes a theme and in transfiguring the image the artist stands a chance to open a discourse into the area that concerns them. For Hunter it is the community in Hackney (now maybe he is venturing further afield) for Stirton there are many peoples around the world that have felt the effect of his lens.

I have though, thought about other artists who haven’t sought to engage with anyone perhaps but themselves, the likes of Francesca Woodman, Duane Michals and so on. For these artists maybe the internal conversation was all that mattered, maybe it didn’t matter to them what anyone thought about their work. Not entirely sure.

But I do know that I feel that I have to get over this ‘prettiness’ thing. I have strong feelings about certain subjects that I want to communicate, and in doing so I will need to draw people into that conversation. To help them to help me in a discourse about an area that concerns me and I can’t do that without a correspondent.


14 thoughts on “On Beauty

  1. John I guess we will probably all look at this issue from our own perspective so thought I would throw my own thoughts into the hat. Personally I think that it is not just a question of whether an image is pretty or not. What is more important is that an image communicates something that the photographer feels is important and about which he/she is passionate.

    For communication to be effective, two things have to happen. First the image needs to be visually compelling so that it grabs the viewers attention. Second, it needs to convey the photographer’s message effectively, whether it be a documentary fact, a concept, a feeling/emotion or simply a question.

    A visually compelling image need not be beautiful per se, but this is one route that the photographer may decide to take. Simon Norfolk, Paul Graham, Edward Burtynsky, Richard Misrach, Alex Soth, Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld, Joel Meyerowitz, Tom Hunter, etc etc all produce visually compelling work, some of which might be called beautiful. They are also damn good at making images which get over the facts/concepts/emotions/questions they want to convey.

    ..So as you can see I don’t have a problem with pretty pictures per se…only ’empty’ pretty pictures or ones which misrepresent what is really going on (this last statement is a minefield in itself but I’ll try to away with it!!).

    • “For communication to be effective, two things have to happen. ” I’ve done a lot of work in the theatre and one of my maxims as a director was that it’s all well and good having a great entrance, but you have to able to hold the audiences attention, that the ongoing performance deserves to be seen. I think we are saying the same thing Keith, it’s all well and good to have a petty or compelling images, but if it doesn’t communicate it will be deemed vacuous, irrespective of the author’s intent. I havent come across Richard Misrach, so will check him out – thanks!

      • One more thought. When we looked at your high key work with the grasses etc we all felt that it conveyed the mood/emotion/experience of the photographer (i.e. you), so we did not perceive these images as vacuous. For me the images brought to mind my own memories of being out in the snow and how the landscape is transformed by it. You on the other hand having been there didn’t see it that way. You seemed to be saying that you took the photographs only because they would ‘work’. However the fact is you were out there in the snow and you did have that experience and your photographs showed what caught your eye….so I feel that what we were sensing is your experience of/emotional response to that place. Remember Barthes, the author is dead, all that counts is what the viewer reads into your work (not sure if I fully subscribe to this view but in good measure it does seem to the be the case). Context is also important and in the context we were viewing your photographs we had our critical hats on (albeit relatively mild critical hats) so we were not just responding to your work the way we did to be ‘nice’.

      • That is a very interesting point Keith, not one that I had thought about, inasmuch as, if you remember, I took photographs with both film and digital. The view was compelling and drew me in, I composed the frame using the film camera i.e. slower (35mm, not MF, but still slower than digital) therefore inherently more investment. Then I used the digital, but that would be after ‘knowing the scene’, which of I hadn’t been able to do before as I had never seen this view before.
        I am happy to let the image ‘go’ a la Barthes and if anyone can extract anything from any of my photographs I am extremely happy. These past couple of weeks have helped me considerably to reassess a lot of what I am trying to do with the camera, and I know it will be difficult for me to leave the cloying hold of prettiness behind, a weight that has been spinning my wheels for a couple of years or so now. Very much appreciated.

  2. I hadn’t realised how frustrating it must have been for you when we weren’t really comprehending how you felt about your work – that something is inchoate. Instead of ‘pretty’ (a word I’m not keen on either) I keep thinking of delicate – in fact I did when I saw those thin blades of grass thrusting out from the snow.

    What kind of help do you need to nurture this emerging plant of yours?

    • I have a suggestion. How about next time bringing some photographs you had some difficulty with, rather than finding it all easy, but think might have some potential.

      • I have difficulty with all my photographs Ha Ha!. Interesting thought. I should have a good number of projects running by then so should have a selection by then.

  3. I had a bit of a phase of being desperate for someone to say something negative as its felt so desperately soul-destroying for all work to be seen as “good” when i could see it wasn’t/isn’t. people get very attached to their work though and giving a valuable critique with any form of negative stuff in there is very hard without seeing them while you are speaking. So I always thank people for being negative as I know how it feels when people take what I saw the wrong way and think i’m being “nasty” etc. You only have to put your foot in it once to realise its probably not worth the agro so you don’t do it again. The problem is you can get left with this feeling of relativism.

    For me the resolution (temporary probably!) is to assess people’s criteria for making judgements about images and then discount them if the underlying reason is to do with something I find superficial – prettiness etc. but value it immensely if its founded on anything to do with meaning. I know I have criteria that i base my judgements on and I know what they are, I also know some of other people’s … some I can’t agree with as being valid (for me, although they may be valid for others) others I can agree with even if they’re different from my own. I think it might partly come down to context. Anyway I don’t know if this helps!

    • Yes it does help, thank you. I set up a print group nearly ten years ago and we can be quite vocal about each other’s work, but we know one another and are face to face. I’ve participated in on-line forums before; it can be very gentle, and sometimes downright sycophantic at times – you have to know your audience well, otherwise it usually ends up in tears and tantrums. However it is as much about how I value my work, rather than how much anyone else sees anything in it. Sharon (at the TV group meeting) suggested it was about intent (hence the title of the blog piece) and for me that says so much about my struggle. I’m very happy when people like my work – people buy it for heaven’s sake – if they get something from it then so be it, but if I can’t see the value in it, because my intent to communicate just doesn’t work, or that the photograph comes too easily, that’s when I struggle. Having said that, I do feel as though I might be moving forward – Tom Hunter’s talk cleared the fog away a bit…..

      • I personally think that creative work is a constant battle with fog.

        When looking at my artwork my old art tutor would usually get a face on her and say….”yes…but what is it ABOUT” and it became second nature for me to ask myself that – if whatever its about doesn’t excite me – then i know i’m not doing anything very worthwhile, but if it does then I know i’m on to something – more usually I don’t really know and that’s where the fog comes in, making the work is about finding out what its about for me. Making the work is an enquiry into it and if the work succeeds (for me) it holds that within it.

      • The thing is, I quite often know what it is I want to convey and I generally seem to fail to live up to my expectations. But I do also like ‘just working’ a la Cowley Rd, having no idea what it is that I’m doing; but feel that for me it is a dalliance but I’m prepared to carry on and see what happens. I can hear some old tutors now groaning and saying “just get on with it!” I’m not at a place where the investigation into the work is as much part of the work as a whole, as the work itself. Not sure if I’ll ever get to that place. Oh well….

  4. Pingback: Assignment Five, collecting all the texts and references | John Umney - Documentary

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